Ad Agencies in Egypt Reopen as Protests Continue in Bahrain

from my blog published in Advertising Age

MCN Chairman Akram Miknas has a view down to the square where the protests in Bahrain are unfolding, swelling, gripping yet another Middle Eastern nation. He is mesmerized. One by one, in countries where people feel marginalized, deprived and where they have no voice, they’re gathering togther to say ‘Enough!’. But this is Bahrain and Miknas has a love and long history here. He and his family are honorary citizens – a very rare honor. Over frantic calls from family and friends, Miknas watches the gathering masses, not knowing what would happen next, and wonders how the next few days would affect his advertising businesses, his clients, his country.

MCN – an Interpublic majority owned company runs several key agencies in the region – including McCann FP7, UM, Lowe, Initiative, Weber Shandwick, MRM and more – and Miknas has seen the industry and his business being affected. In Egypt, the office has come back to life now, playing catch up after more than week of shutdown, but it’s been really bad for business. In Tunis, things are normal again, but who knows, Miknas fears, what is about to unfold across the region. Clients aren’t always very bold in uncertainties – media plans and tv shoots get cancelled in seconds. Business can move from great to good and spiral into ‘wow, now what’ in hours.

As I post, Thursday Feb 17th noon here, things aren’t going well. Bahrain police have catapulted the situation into high alert – aggravating the protesters. Tomorrow is billed to be huge there. All social is buzzing. Caught between the fight for rights, between sectarian (Shia vs Sunni) stands, and not knowing what they’re shouting for, it’s a mess. No better in Libya. No worse in Yemen. No nothing in Iran, for fear of getting killed. And, steady, steady, wait and watch in Egypt. Oh, and our industry?

More than one client is asking the social media question. If everyone’s attention is on the social channels or on protest-centered news, how come media planning agencies haven’t scrambled and gotten into the social action more heavily? How come the creative agencies haven’t quickly responded with viral videos and interesting creative that would thrive on this new focus?

The advertising industry is playing cautious. Every one is quick to recognize the mobilization tools for the protests – the internet, mobile, social media – but we’re not seeing quick shifts away from traditional tv and print into social and search built around the new momentum for brands. Particularly for global and regional brands who have no idea which way the power tides shift. And who have to remain loyal to the immediate. “How come your brand won’t wave our flag now?’ asked one protester, about why brands were shying away from taking the side of the young, and supporting them with wither “direct or subliminal support”. “We will remember this” he warned me.

Starting in Tunisia, then rolling across like thunder in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Iran – this whole new age concept of freedom across the internet is contagious – and the youth in this region are clicking on faster then you can say democracy. And, lest we forget, more than 55% of the population in this region is under 24. And a huge number of them have mobile and 24/7 access to the internet.

One client-side marketing manager, at a key regional pitch for a rather large account in the region, pointed out that all the econometric modeling and media absorbtion predictive tools had gone for a toss – they didn’t see #Jan25 coming. Nor the emergence of Al Jazeera TV as a channel with their live coverage. Or google as a tool for the information hungry.

So, no, TV wasn’t top dog in Cairo for the youth segment the last couple of weeks. Nobody was watching our spots. Advertising as we knew it in the region with tv as hero was suddenly in flux. Messages were more real time, more crisp, shorter, relevant, behaviorally targeted in the immediate. They weren’t formatted for 30s. They were 140c.

Posted on February 18, 2011

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